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Simon Parke: Best years of our lives?

16 March 2011

I HAVE not been inside a public school since I left mine in 1975. But, 36 years on, I visited another one recently. And things have changed.

I was invited by Sutton Valence School to go and talk to a hundred pupils on National Book Day. The school is set in Kent, and I felt ap­propriately Dickensian as I hurtled down the M20 from London through the Garden of England — although he, of course, would have walked it. Like Van Gogh, Dickens was a phe­nomenal walker.

The school itself is just beyond Leeds Castle, and is not only very old — it was founded in 1576 — but also very cold. Chris, the teacher who welcomed me, explained that they were set on the only hill in the county. And, although this meant that they could see France on a clear day, it meant that there was always a wind. Even when the sun shone and the sky was blue, there was a wind; and in the winter, it was bitter.

But there was nothing bitter in my experiences after that. I was meeting the young people in the library, which was heaven for all book af­icionados. It was light, friendly, and, most important of all, had no com­puters in it, apart from one for the librarian. This was a deliberate act. “We want it to be a place for books,” Chris said; and it was just that. I had not fully appreciated how invasive computer terminals are: their ab­sence is a powerful invitation to slow down and explore.

All the staff were dressed as char­acters from books. Chris was dressed as James Bond, and I also met the Queen of Hearts, Mary Poppins, and Heathcliffe — although I confess that my first thought was Joe Sugden from Emmerdale.

It was also an honour to meet a convincing Father Brown, who, after five minutes of chat, revealed himself to be the authentic school chaplain. When you dress up professionally, there is a thin line between reality and make-believe.

So what has changed? I think it is the intimacy of the whole experience. In the old days, public schools were brutal courses in survival. I re­member the shock, as a small 13-year-old, of walking for the first time into my huge dormitory — a space I was to share with 40 others for the next five years. Lord of the Flies comes to mind. As John McCarthy said of his harsh years as a hostage in Beirut: “Public school was the perfect preparation.”

But here, in Sutton Valence, was a different climate. There was an open­ness and a trust between staff and pupils which was a million miles from the bleak relationships that I had known.

Parents pay upwards of £25,000 p.a. for boarding education these days; so they are clearly looking for a relational and homely return. My guess is that they have found it in this corner of the Garden of England.


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